The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

A Conversation With Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline, who is running for reelection this November. In our conversation, we talked about Sheline’s controversial approaches to homelessness and substance abuse, his attempts at revitalizing downtown Lewiston and the role of Bates in the L/A community. Our full conversation, which has been marginally edited for length and clarity, is below.

In your 2022 Inaugural Address, you recounted that—after telling a constituent that “Lewiston is turning a corner”—he responded, “Carl, we’ve been turning a corner for the past ten years.” As we head to the end of your first term, Mr. Mayor, is Lewiston still turning that corner or has it finally arrived?

Thank you for inviting me in and I’m happy to be here, Lena. I want to say that it’s a combination of both. A lot of great things are happening in the city. We have the Choice Neighborhood project which is underway. It’s a $30 million grant from the Department of HUD [Housing and Urban Development] that’s going to leverage about 90 to 100 million, and we broke ground on that this summer. We had one of the largest empty buildings in Maine, the Continental Mill, roughly 576 thousand square feet; part of that went under development. We broke ground on it earlier this summer for apartments and the rest is slated to start later this year. We’re making substantial progress, and I’m excited about the direction that things are headed. 

In your response, you talked a lot about housing projects. Creating more housing is a policy supported by many candidates and it, naturally, brings up one of the issues Lewiston is currently facing: homelessness. Over the last few years, homelessness in Lewiston has increased—a crisis recognized by both sides of the aisle. Despite this, the mayor’s office and many on city council seem to be at odds with each other when it comes to creating a cohesive and united plan to address this crisis. City council, for example, censured you for writing a letter voicing your support for expanding the Project Home initiative. Additionally, city council has voted against transforming 104 Park Street into a homeless shelter—a proposal that you supported. Can you elaborate on your plan to address homelessness including your support for Project Home and a new homeless shelter? Additionally, why do you think you were censured by the city council? Why do you think the city council is so hesitant to create a new homeless shelter? 

Here we go. There are ideological differences about how to proceed when it comes to homelessness in our city. I think people’s biases and stigma get in the way. From a practical matter, we need to address homelessness—not just for the individuals, but for our city and for our downtown. There are concerns that opening up a homeless shelter will just attract more homeless. I do not share those concerns. I think we need to help people where they’re at and a homeless shelter would help make a difference not just for the people but a difference for our downtown as well. We have people sleeping in business doorways and on park benches. Homelessness does not contribute to an attractive downtown. Not only is it the right thing to do, it makes sense from an economic perspective as well.  

You mentioned that creating homeless shelters has clear economic positives. In general, economic development has been a huge focus of your office and a huge issue in this election cycle. More specifically, in one of the meetings for your ad hoc committee on economic development, you and your committee members discussed the negative perception of Lewiston among outsiders and the persistence of nicknames like “the dirty Lew.” What alternative image of Lewiston do you hope to create? What steps are you taking to achieve this rebranding of Lewiston and how will this new image of the city better represent our true identity as a community?

We had several murals go up this summer. They’re magnificent. They’ve really transformed the immediate place where they are and they give people a really good feeling about their city. The response to this has been overwhelmingly positive from residents and from people visiting. I think that when people talk about Lewiston around the state, they’re really talking about Lewiston from 20 to 30 years ago. We’ve changed and people’s perceptions haven’t. It’s been difficult to get people to see the Lewiston that exists today. I have lived here for over a decade now and since I wasn’t here before I don’t have a lot of the same past perceptions that some residents both in and outside of Lewiston have. I just see such a wonderful city. We have beautiful architecture here. The murals have done a wonderful job of enhancing our town. We have the best riverfront park in Maine, Simard Payne Memorial Park. I’m proud to live here and I want everyone to feel that way.

I like how you mentioned art murals because I saw on your LinkedIn that you shared a picture of a new mural on Chestnut Street designed by artist Nathan Brown. You captioned this post, “Art can change a city and it’s happening right here in [the] city of Lewiston, Maine.” How is art, Mr. Mayor, transforming Lewiston?

All the negative images and perceptions of Lewiston … I think art certainly helps to overcome that. The murals are on a grand scale. They’re gorgeous and I think people love art. It gets people talking. New paint always does wonders for a wall and in this case the beautiful art that we’ve gotten—it does two things: It helps visitors and people outside Lewiston see it in a different light. The murals here are going to change the way people feel about our city. People love the zebra. People love Nathan Brown’s geometric shapes that you just mentioned. I think it’s really going to create a sense of pride for residents here. 

You mentioned getting everyone to feel pride about living here in Lewiston. Speaking of everyone, let’s talk about the role of Bates students in feeling pride about living in Lewiston and their role in Lewiston politics. In 2015, Luke Jenson—one of your opponents in this race—proposed moving a special election to June. Many of his critics alleged that this was an attempt to prevent Bates students from voting in it. Do you agree? What are your thoughts on Bates students registering to vote in Maine and choosing to take a more active role in local politics? 

I think anytime that we attempt to disenfranchise voters is just the wrong course of action and we don’t need to argue about college students voting in the town they go to college. They’re allowed to; it’s the law. You are here a majority of the year—9 months of the year—and, for sure, you should have a say. The stigma that Bates has for some people in Lewiston just isn’t fair. Bates is our third largest employer in town and they have done a lot for our city. Students, staff, and faculty work here. They live here. They shop here. They eat at our restaurants. Having Bates here in Lewiston is a huge economic driver for our city and I am happy that over my term I have been able to grow the relationship between Bates and the city. 

Speaking about growing the relationship between city government—and city services—with city residents. How do we repair the relationship between the Lewiston police and the local community? Following a series of shootings in Lewiston over the summer, you helped create an advisory committee on public safety. Last month, your committee was attacked by the Lewiston police union and several conservative city council members as being politically motivated and “pitt[ing] the community against the police department.” What is your response to this criticism regarding your committee?

I appreciate the question. This committee is not an attack on any one agency, person [or] affinity group. The idea is that we’re going to take a holistic approach to safety in our community and figure out how we can all do things better. The police can not do it alone.  They need the community’s buy-in. Are there things that the police could do better? Yeah, of course, but there are also things that the community can do better as well. The idea is to have a community conversation in a transparent and public way to help enhance safety in our city. 

What do you think are some of the root causes of those shootings over the summer? 

There’s several causes. The amount of substance use in our city certainly contributes to crime. The prevalence of guns certainly isn’t helpful and we really just need to focus on giving people opportunities—opportunities for employment, opportunities for recreation. 

During your first term, you created an advisory committee on substance abuse and recovery. One of the root causes of crime that you mentioned above. What kind of policies regarding substance abuse did this advisory committee recommend and what are you hoping to implement? 

The substance use and recovery committee made a number of recommendations and one of them was a detox center. We need to get people help when they’re ready to accept help and right now we don’t have a detox center in Lewiston. They need to either drive to Portland or Brunswick, so there’s kind of a gap in services here. The community had a number of recommendations to help people get into recovery. The truth is until recovery is as readily available as drugs are, we’re never going to be making a difference or it is going to be very difficult to move forward. It’s hard because we’re dealing with people’s biases and stigma and we need to get past that so that we can take concrete action to improve the situation. 

We’ve talked a lot about opposition to some of your proposals amongst the city council. Your own role as a mayor, however, has often come under political fire. Lee Clement, for instance, was one of the council members that wanted to pass a proposal to prevent you from expressing your opinions during city council debates—a proposal that you saw as an effort to silence you and the residents that elected you. With that in mind, what do you think the role of the mayor should be in local politics and what kind of relationship should the mayor and city council have? 

Just to be clear, I am a part of the city council. I’m not a city councilor, but the council is made up of both the city counciliors and the mayor. I am the only person on the council that is elected by the entire city and not just a single ward. I really see my role as a voice of the people—to advocate on behalf of the citizens of Lewiston and advocate what is best for everybody. I think a strong debate is a hallmark of democracy and I think it is okay to express opinions and it is okay to have a vigorous discourse about what is the best way forward. I think the idea that some people shouldn’t speak is just really anti-democratic. 

Something that the city doesn’t seem to have common ground on is DEI efforts. Recently, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts have come under fire from some members of city council. Lee Clement and Rick LaChapelle, for instance, wrote a proposal—behind the council’s back—condemning the programs “Building Anti-Racist White Educators” and “Educators of Color Collective.” According to them, these after-school organizations for Lewiston public school teachers are “radical” and rooted in “critical race theory.” Additionally, Rick LaChapelle also wrote another proposal to remove the city’s DEI director. Since you have condemned both of these proposals, can you explain your stance on DEI efforts and how it can help the city of Lewiston? 

Lewiston is one of the most diverse cities in Maine. We’re either number one or two—depending if you’re looking at the school department or the population at large. We have incredible diversity in this community. A part of the work of DEI is just to make sure that everyone has the same opportunities for success. Right now I’m struggling to think of a single Somali school teacher in our Lewiston public schools. We have ed-techs and other support staff, but we need to increase diversity in terms of city and school employment. The police department has been making progress, but the police department is certainly not representative of the diversity in our community; neither is city hall and neither is the school department. We need to take steps to address that and the DEI work that was being done in the school and at the city were extremely critical to that effort. 

Do you think these attacks against DEI are rooted in larger culture wars issues that we’re currently seeing on the national stage?   

It’s hard not to think that somebody watches their favorite political TV commentator pundit on [the] nightly news and thinks about things that are going on here locally. That’s really, really unfortunate. 

To continue our discussion about how national political trends impact Lewiston, has Biden been good for Maine and Lewiston? 

Yeah. I think that Biden’s policies have largely been good for Maine and largely good for Lewiston. He was just here touring manufacturing here in Central Maine and I appreciate his visit and how that helped shine a spotlight on Lewiston-Auburn 

Moving on to some concluding questions, what’s your proudest achievement from your first term as mayor?

One of my overriding goals has really been to shine a positive spotlight on Lewiston, its businesses and its residents. I’ve enjoyed talking about the cool companies that we have here, everything from Bourgeois Guitars to Bates to local restaurants like Obscura—down the street from city hall. We have amazing companies here in Lewiston and the people working them and the residents living here are equally amazing. I really enjoyed talking to people, talking to businesses, and really just advocating for both businesses and people and for Lewiston at large. I think one of the roles of a mayor is to be a cheerleader for our city and I’m really proud of that. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge that Lewiston still faces? 

Image is certainly a challenge, but we’re making headway on it. We’ve made a lot of progress filling vacant storefronts—not just downtown but across the city. Working to generate economic activity is going to be paramount in importance. At the same time, trying to get everyone on board to help solve some of our challenges is going to be extremely critical—for instance, substance use and homelessness in our city. 

What about the election in particular? In your opinion, what is the biggest issue voters will find on their ballots this November?

I think there’s a clear choice between myself and the other candidates. I’ve really tried to build up Lewiston [and] support our businesses and the people living here. I think that if we want to continue that we can’t be fear-mongering and reaching out to failed policies of the past. 

What are those failed policies of the past? 

The idea that homelessness is just going to go away on its own is just really laughable at this point; the idea that we can just arrest everybody for substance use is not practical, nor even possible. I think sometimes it’s hard to make the right decision, for sure. But my goal as mayor is to continue to break down biases, stigmas and barriers towards making real positive efforts [and moving] forward on these issues. 

What final message would you like to give to Bates students reading this interview?

I appreciate you being here. I appreciate you coming to school at Bates. I appreciate you volunteering in our city through the Harward Center. I appreciate you visiting our local shops and restaurants. It’s really great to have you in our community. For sure, you’re getting an education and the experience here in our city certainly shapes you as well, but we’re also getting and learning a lot as well. For the new students, welcome to our town and I’m really glad to have Bates in our city. 

Just one last follow up question: what’s the role of Bates students when it comes to dismantling the prejudices and stereotypes you just mentioned?

I think through the work at the Harward Center, Bates students have been really good examples of what community service means. You volunteer not just in our schools, but [in] Tree Street Youth, and St. Mary’s nutrition center, and on, and on and on. I think it’s a really good example. You yourself did not live here, you didn’t grow up here, you just came here and you and others like you got right to work helping to improve our community. I think it’s a powerful example and it’s a powerful message and I really really appreciate it.

 

A correction was made on Oct. 23 at 2:55pm. A previous version of this story mistakenly used the word “censored” where it should have read “censured”. This mistake has been fixed.

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About the Contributor
Lena LaPierre, Assistant Forum Editor
Lena is a sophomore from Hattiesburg, MS, majoring in History with a minor in Russian. When she is not busy writing essays or memorizing Russian grammar rules, Lena can be found reading, volunteering with College Guild and exploring Maine with her friends. Previously, Lena was a contributing writer for The Bates Student.

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    Anonymous ReaderOct 22, 2023 at 11:25 AM

    The Mayor was NOT Censored. He was rightfully “censured”. Big difference, shocked this was missed by editors.

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